Complementary Chemotherapy Therapies

Some alternative therapies that may make your loved one feel better while he or she is undergoing chemotherapy.

Many people with cancer are exploring complementary therapies. These methods focus on the mind, body, and spirit. They do not take the place of medical therapies, but add to them. They can reduce stress, lessen side effects from cancer and cancer treatments, and enhance well-being. And they can help you feel more in control; it is something you can do for yourself.

A few of the therapies available are described here. Many more therapies exist such as art therapy, humor, journaling, reiki, music therapy, pet therapy and others. You may want to check with your doctor before using these techniques, especially if you have lung problems. A social worker, psychologist, or nurse may be able to help you with these therapies. You may also want to read books, listen to audiotapes, and watch videotapes about these techniques.


With training in biofeedback, you can control body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. A machine will sense when your body shows signs of tension and lets you know in some way such as making a sound or flashing a light. The machine also gives you feedback when you relax your body. Eventually, you can control your relaxation responses without having to depend on feedback from the machine. Your doctor, nurse, or social worker can refer you to someone trained in teaching biofeedback.


Distraction is the use of an activity to take your mind off your worries or discomforts. Talking with friends or relatives, watching TV, listening to the radio, reading, going to the movies, or working with your hands by doing needlework or puzzles, building models, or painting are all ways to distract yourself. Many cancer centers now have music or creative art therapists who can be very helpful to you while you are getting treatment for your cancer. Ask your nurse or social work department about possible resources in your area.


Hypnosis puts you in a deeply relaxed state that can help reduce discomfort and anxiety. You can be hypnotized by a qualified person, or you can learn how to hypnotize yourself. If you are interested in learning more, ask your doctor, nurse, or social worker to refer you to someone trained in the technique.


Imagery is a way of daydreaming that uses all your senses. It is usually done with your eyes closed. To begin, breathe slowly and feel yourself relax. Imagine a ball of healing energy—perhaps a white light—forming somewhere in your body. When you can “see” the ball of energy, imagine that as you breathe in you can blow the ball to any part of the body where you feel pain, tension, or discomfort such as nausea. When you breathe out, picture the air moving the ball away from your body, taking with it any painful or uncomfortable feelings. (Be sure to breathe naturally; do not blow.) Continue to picture the ball moving toward you and away from you each time you breathe in and out. You may see the ball getting bigger and bigger as it takes away more and more tension and discomfort. To end the imagery, count slowly to three, breathe in deeply, open your eyes, and say to yourself, “I feel alert and relaxed.”

Massage Therapy

The idea that touch can heal is an old one. The first written records of massage date back 3,000 years ago to China. Massage therapy involves touch and different methods of stroking and kneading the muscles of the body. A licensed massage therapist should do the therapy. Talk to your doctor before beginning this therapy.
Meditation And Prayer

Meditation is a relaxation technique that allows you to focus your energy and your thoughts on something very specific. This is especially helpful when your mind and body are stressed from cancer treatment. For example, you may want to repeat a word (over and over), or look at an object, such as a picture. Another form of meditation is allowing your thoughts, feelings, and images to flow through your mind. For patients who believe in a higher spiritual power, prayer can provide strength, comfort and inspiration throughout the cancer experience. Whether you pray alone, with family and friends, or as a member of a religious community, prayer may help. A member of the clergy or your spiritual advisor can help you incorporate prayer into your daily life.

Muscle Tension And Release

Lie down in a quiet room. Take a slow, deep breath. As you breathe in, tense a particular muscle or group of muscles. For example, you can squeeze your eyes shut, frown, clench your teeth, make a fist, or stiffen your arms or legs. Hold your breath and keep your muscles tense for a second or two. Then breathe out, release the tension, and let your body relax completely. Repeat the process with another muscle or muscle group. You also can try a variation of this method, called “progressive relaxation.” Start with the toes of one foot and, working upward, progressively tense and relax all the muscles of one leg. Next, do the same with the other leg. Then tense and relax the rest of the muscle groups in your body, including those in your scalp. Remember to hold your breath while tensing your muscles and to breathe out when releasing the tension.

Physical Exercise

Exercise can help lessen pain, strengthen weak muscles, restore balance, and decrease depression and fatigue. After getting approval from your doctor, you may want to begin by walking 5-10 minutes twice a day and later increasing your activity.

Rhythmic Breathing

Get in a comfortable position and relax all your muscles. If you keep your eyes open, focus on a distant object. If you close your eyes, imagine a peaceful scene or simply clear your mind and focus on your breathing.

Breathe in and out slowly and comfortably through your nose. If you like, you can keep the rhythm steady by saying to yourself, “In, one two; out, one two.” Feel yourself relax and go limp each time you breathe out.

You can do this technique for just a few seconds or for up to 10 minutes. End your rhythmic breathing by counting slowly and silently to three.


Visualization is similar to imagery. With visualization, you create an inner picture that represents your fight against cancer. Some people getting chemotherapy use images of rockets blasting away their cancer cells or of knights in armor battling their cancer cells. Others create an image of their white blood cells or their drugs attacking the cancer cells.


All you need is a quiet, comfortable place and some time each day to practice breathing, stretching, and meditation. To learn about yoga you may want to take a class and review books, audiotapes, or videotapes on yoga. Ask your social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist about yoga classes in your area.

© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Reprinted from Chemotherapy and You: A Guide to Self-Help During Cancer Treatment, NIH Publication #99-1136, developedby the United States National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute, June 1999.

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